Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes

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I have a three hour layover in the San Francisco airport. So…

Slippery Slopes and Fixed Ropes
Brian Zahnd

The “slippery slope” trope is a favorite among fundamentalists. Basically the argument goes like this: The moment you move away from fundamentalist Biblicism you’re on the slippery slope of liberalism and will wind up sliding down into a crevasse with the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher and John Shelby Spong. According to those who believe that serious theology is a slippery slope, you’re either with fundamentalists and young earth creationists like Ken Ham or you’re sliding down the mountain with new atheists like Christopher Hitchens. Of course, this is a ludicrous false dichotomy. But it carries a ton of intimidation. Just about the worst thing you can call an evangelical pastor is a liberal. The only thing worse is to go Def-Con 4 and drop the H-bomb: Heretic!

So instead of climbing the holy mountain of theology (study of God) seeking to encounter the Divine as revealed in Christ, many evangelicals feel forced to stay in the flatlands of fundamentalist Biblicism with its flat reading of Scripture. The “flatlanders” idea is that if we will simply read the Bible “as it is” we will be safe from all error. The problem is that the flatlanders tend to end up endorsing unsustainable theories like a literal six day (144 hour) creation and that the earth is only 6,000 years old. They also feel forced to defend morally repugnant ideas from a primitive era, like a God who commands genocide, including the slaughter of children. A flat reading of the Bible fails to notice the back and forth nature of Scripture as the Old Testament maintains a strident debate on important matters. For example: Does God require blood sacrifice? The Torah says, yes, but the Psalms and Prophets challenge this. Should Gentiles be allowed to worship in the second Temple? Isaiah says, yes, but Nehemiah says no.

A flat reading of the Bible does not give us the full revelation of God. The full revelation of God is found only in Jesus. Jesus alone is the perfect icon of God’s image and the exact imprint of God’s nature (Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3). What the Bible does infallibly is point us to Jesus! Jesus is the only perfect theology. But the exploration of God as revealed in Christ — which is what we mean by Christian theology — is an ongoing venture, not unlike climbing a great mountain. So instead of sitting in the flatlands pretending that a flat reading of our sacred text will reveal the full glory of God, we need to grab our ice axes, strap on our crampons and climb the mountain of God!

From my own experience I know that climbing mountains is rewarding, difficult, and dangerous. So let me push the theology-as-mountaineering metaphor a little farther. Are there dangers in climbing the mountain of God? Yes. People have fallen into crevasses of error. But it doesn’t have to happen. There are safety precautions. We are not the first to ascend the slopes of the Divine Mountain. Great spiritual mountaineers have gone before us — climbers like Origen and Cassian, Irenaeus and Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. Not only have they gone before us, but they have established the fixed ropes that later theological climbers can clip into. It’s the fixed ropes that enable us to climb the steep slopes of God without falling into the crevasses of error.

(Longs Peak in Colorado has seen something like seventy fatalities. But there has never been a fatal fall of a roped climber. It tends to be the inexperienced day hikers who get into trouble. Do you see my point?)

These fixed ropes I’m talking about are the great historic Creeds of the church — especially the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. Having confessed — “clipped into” — the Creeds we are free to explore the mountain of God without undo anxiety of sliding down the mountain as a doomed heretic. This is what the Creeds are for. They keep us safe while doing theology. We’re not worried about the slippery slopes because we have the fixed ropes.

Occasionally I meet with someone who suspects I may be a heretic because I don’t share their precise views on eschatology or atonement theories or afterlife speculations or some other area of theology. The moment they raise the subject of heresy, I always respond the same way. I say this:

“I need you to look me in the eye and listen very closely, because what I’m about to say is extremely important. I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” And I recite for them — very slowly — the entire Apostles’ Creed. When I finish the Creed I says this: “Throughout the history of the church this Creed, along with the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds, have defined what it means to believe as an orthodox Christian. I confess these Creeds. Therefore I am orthodox in my Christian faith. Beyond the Creeds we may have disagreements about how we interpret the book of Revelation, how old the earth is, and how many people will be in hell, but these disagreements do not amount to heresy.” And then, with a wry smile I add, “Just because you don’t agree with me doesn’t mean you are a heretic. So if you would like to have a theological conversation, I would love to do that. But we will not be dropping H-bombs on each other.”

I’m simply not a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is a wrongheaded and anti-intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment trying to make Holy Scripture a kind of scientific text to rebut modernity. Neither am I a Biblicist. Biblicism is a flat reading of Scripture that makes the Bible itself an idolatrous object of faith, rather than what it is: the word of God as an inspired sign pointing us to the true Word of God who is Jesus Christ. And I’m certainly not a liberal. Insisting on the primacy of the Church Fathers, the Great Tradition, and the historic Creeds as our guide to interpreting Scripture is perhaps the very essence of what it means to be a truly conservative Christian! I confess what the church has taught me to confess about Christ and the Christian faith. I have clipped into the fixed ropes of Christian orthodoxy and I’m committed to exploring the mountain of Christian theology. I’m not afraid of slippery slopes. I will not be cowed into dwelling in the flatlands because some have neither the curiosity nor the courage to climb the mountain of God. I have my theological ice axe and crampons. I’ve clipped into the fixed ropes of the Creeds. And I intend to scale the slippery slopes to gain a glimpse of the God revealed in Christ.

BZ

  • TLM7

    what do you do if you feel the fixed creeds are just a different form of fundamentalism?

  • Well, if you want to think of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, etc. as “fundamentalists,” I suppose you may, but you would be mistaken.

  • Ross

    Is “process theology” still on the Divine Mountain? I see many going in that direction. They still say they confess the creeds, but they radically reinterpret them.

  • TLM7

    I guess I should have clarified – hard to do when I’m anxious about all religious stuff. I don’t think of the originators of the creeds as fundamentalist, but the people expressing belief in them and how that’s playing out in my church right now (and most churches I’ve been to). people seem scared if I tell them I am struggling with belief. which makes me view them as fundamentalist, because they’re not listening to my experience and they’re offering no support. they only want me to believe the exact same thing as they do.

  • Nathan Guerra
  • So, in the Episcopal church, every Sunday, we recite the Nicene creed
    together which, while very close to the Apostles’ Creed (which we do recite
    at Evensong, baptisms, etc.) in both content and structure, differs in that it uses the collective
    pronoun “we” instead of the individual “I.”

    I love our parish
    because we welcome doubt, and it’s exemplified in this difference
    between “we” and “I.” Our priest has talked with me several times about
    how he loves that we say “We believe…” instead of “I believe…”
    because it makes room for doubt. So if you’re struggling with the virgin
    birth, for instance, that’s cool. Doubt, friend. Don’t say, “I believe.” But *we* believe, so
    we’re all here, holding each other up with this Christianity stuff that
    just doesn’t make sense sometimes.

    It’s not like “we believe”
    and sharing our same precise beliefs is a prerequisite of belonging with us. It’s “we
    believe” together compositely. We’re united in Christ, we’re united through the Eucharist. We eat the same holy food. We are holy people together. We don’t, as individuals have all the details worked
    out, but as a community, we believe. We’re all here with each other in
    our doubts and in our beliefs.

  • TLM7

    that is beautiful, Rachel. leaving room for nuanced emotions, doubts, all of it. supporting each other. what a lovely picture of community.

    xo
    -tamara

  • TLM7

    thank you. i will check these out.

  • Kevin Manross

    I find myself still recovering from the “slippery slope” arguments of my youth. It’s like a filter that, when I’m not consciously thinking about it, I fall back into fearfully. I’ve been growing out of this mindset into the freedom and love of God over the past few years by reading and listening to pastors like yourself, among others.

    During my transition from the “slippery slope” mindset to the more “freeing” discussions and questions about Who God is, what is His love about, what roles do Jesus and the Holy Spirit play, what about afterlife and those I love – I found myself, for a while, in sort of a freefall of “what is true?” This is still a process for me, but I absolutely see the value/necessity of holding onto the ropes of those who have gone before me (and are far better thinkers than I used to consider myself). Those tenets have given me some firm footing while I explore the depths of those other questions.

    I’m glad you shared this encouraging description.

  • bobbygrow

    Brian Z, not sure if this post was partially prompted by my blog post where I said I would be comparing your theory of the atonement with Schleiermacher’s, but if it is maybe I should finish that series of posts so you can understand better why I asserted that about you, or your apparent view.

    I’m a Barthian, so it would be wrong to think I’m fundy. Anyway, just wanted to clarify. Maybe I should finish what I started with that post of mine though … I think I will :-).

  • Lisa Hoyer

    I don’t believe your faith is really your own until you question it. You will probably question various aspects of it throughout your life – and that’s okay! Just keep turning to the Lord with your questions. You are not responsible for coming up with all the answers on your own! By all means, talk to friends, talk to your pastor, read and pray. Ask the Holy Spirit for HIS revelation and enlightenment. God is not afraid of your questions. He will always answer with the truth!

  • caming

    This seems to align with NT Wright’s understanding of the creeds as important bookends (but not at all entirely definitional) to the faith. Enjoyed the post!

  • It was not related. I haven’t read it. My view of Scripture (and election) is heavily influenced by Barth.

  • Rob

    Well, Mr. Zahnd, I find it interesting that the apostle John was clear about two things in the books he wrote – Jesus came from God and believing in Jesus (persuaded by him and entrusting him) is the way to eternal life. Jesus has the last words and the only words of eternal Life, just as Paul told Timothy – this word (logos) of Christ is where all healthy teaching stays.

    So…I’d go so far as to say those two things are enough to keep me away from the slippery slopes, though I’ve seen many a dangerous crevasse or two and have had Jesus rescue me multiple times by his wonderful Holy Spirit, when things were dicey.

    Thanks for your writing. Consider this a challenge. 🙂

  • TLM7

    Lisa, this is only a slight variation of what many people in my community have told me, and it comes across as flippant about how I’m feeling. it reminds me of the most recent “advice” I got when I said I was anxious – “don’t let satan get a foothold in your life”. it assumes things about me and my experience that shut down the conversation. If I’m unsure of my beliefs or faith in certain aspects of the story, hearing that I should just trust God to reveal himself to me is not really helpful or applicable. it’s an easy way out of actually supporting me “just pray about it! everything will be fine!” I struggle daily in thinking about whether or not I believe enough of the same things as them to continue to be a part of the community (church).
    but I don’t know you, so my reaction is more about how common a response of this type is, and how it feels to hear it.

  • So you’re stereotyping others because they don’t respond to you the way you want them to?

  • DebbyJane62

    As the song goes, “Climb every mountain, search high and low, follow every highway, every path you know. Ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream. A dream that will need all the love you can give. Every day of your life, for as long as you live.” On the other hand, I believe the sacred text of the Bible is the full revelation of God which is found in Jesus (perfect theology). I believe the Old Testament leads to the New Testament and the debate goes back and forth throughout the scriptures. Climbing the mountain and not “throwing stones” might make the climb smoother! The term “Flatlander” is a negative slander. For most of us, the climb has had rocky roads, hard climbs, slip and slides, and many paths. I say, let us hook up to each other and pull each other together so we all can make it. We do not need the labels or the defining negative attributes. Instead of “trying to make a point” and “prove what we believe or not believe”; maybe it is time that we just shut up and hook up and pull each other up! God bless you for your continued curiosity, courage, and determination. Just always remember, Jesus is the Rock! You can stand firm on that foundation!

  • Love this! Beautiful work…!

  • bobbygrow

    Here’s the post, it is just introductory and I haven’t finished the other two yet (not sure I will): https://growrag.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/brian-zahnd-and-friedrich-schleiermacher-%C2%A71-how-does-zahnd-compare-to-schleiermacher-on-how-does-dying-for-our-sins-work/

    One of the problems, at least based upon what your wrote in that April 2014 post, is that I am unclear on exactly what you hold to in re to the atonement (other than it is multivalent and that you reject PSA). The reason I was seeing some Schleiermacher was because I don’t really see anything ontic/moral in your theory of what Jesus did for us in re to us. In other words, what I see is something like Peter Abelard’s exemplarist theory of the atonement wherein Jesus’ primary mission in the Incarnation/Atonement was to reveal who God is as *love*; to give us a God-consciousness of who God is as Triune love. This is the Schleiermacherian sense (of course modified a bit) I was picking up from your post. Yes, I agree God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. But He died for us in order to elevate our situation to its intended telos as that has found its reality in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ for us. In other words, he did something ontological in the atonement, as one of my primary teachers, TF Torrance would say, and as a result we have been “exalted” in the exaltation of Christ’s humanity (for us) as we now participate in that through union with him. I didn’t get this sense from what you wrote in that post; I got a more Abelardian and Schleiermacherian sense. Could you affirm what I just wrote here as an augment to what you wrote in that post in re to the reality of the atonement and what it accomplished?

  • Look, Schleiremacher basically sees Christianity as the culmination of Natural Religion. I couldn’t be farther from that! I’m much (MUCH!) closer to Barth on this. When Barth says “NO!” in his commentary on Romans he is speaking to Schleiermacher and his decedents…and I couldn’t agree more. Either you don’t understand Schleiremacher or you don’t understand me…because we’re not on the same page. I’m basically on the same page with Barth. My atonement theology is no different than Yoder and Hauerwas — both disciples of Barth. 🙂

  • bobbygrow

    I understand, Schleiermacher, Brian. Schleiermacher has much more nuance to him than you seem to want to think (i.e. it is way too reductionistic to say he sees Christianity as the culmination of Natural Religion). The comparison wasn’t going to be between your prolegomena and Schl’s, it was going to be a christological and soteriological comparison. And yes, I’ve been reading and writing on Barth’s theology for many years now, I understand Barth quite well!

    Yoder and Hauerwas are disciples of Barth, but of course in a very modified and of course Anabaptist way … so it isn’t totally accurate to characterize them that way, per se. Barth is quite Reformed (as am I!) But yeah, like I said, I don’t understand you fully. If that blog post that you wrote represents what you believe, I’m still not sure I understand you, since that does not sound like Barth really at all (since Barth uses the grammar of Judgment election/reprobation etc.). So I would have to know, I guess, in what way you see yourself aligning with Barth more fully … that post you wrote, to my Barthian eyes, did not p/u Barth there.

    I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it I suppose. If you like Barth that’s cool! But now I’m pretty sure I’ll be writing those follow up posts just to show you (if you even care) why I still see some Schleiermacher in your view, at least in what you wrote.

  • Just her?

  • Timothy David Miller

    Our grasp of historical theology is too small, and we need an upgrade in our understanding of apostolic tradition, the sacraments, and an awareness of our place in history. Some of the most “conservative” people I’ve ever met at first struck me as “liberal” simply because they challenged my untested theological assumptions. Now, years later, I see that all they were doing was being faithful to a more careful and informed reading of the texts, or the issues at hand. So now I need grace for those who similarly may view me as liberal when I am trying to honestly explain where I land…

    Thanks for the helpful concepts, Brian. Love you.

  • I’m with Brian on this and would point out that the creeds were not seen as theological compositions, but rather, as faithful memories of the apostolic ‘faith once delivered’ in summary form, similar to what you get at the beginning of 1 Cor. 15. The deliberations were all focused on recalling what the 2nd century apologists called ‘the canon of faith,’ which had been lived by Christ, testified to by the apostles, and authorized through the bishops as that which we confessed as ‘the faith once delivered’ at the point of baptism. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed laid this out, with the Chalcedonian ‘definition’ clarifying (but not adding to) what was meant. It was this ‘canon of faith’ by which the Fathers assessed which books were canonical and should be authorized by the Church as Scripture. That is, a canonical book isn’t simply a book included in the canon of Scripture (which one?), but rather, which books conformed to the ‘canon of faith’ and on that basis could be included as Scripture. This makes it all the more important that we are anchored to the creeds as the interpretive lense through which we interpret Scripture, and why ‘Sola Scriptura’ is itself a slippery slope to autonomous readings of radical individualists and novel sects whose anarchy every bit as dangerous as even institutional hierarchy.

  • Daaaaaang. Yes.

  • Chad H

    I’m in the same boat. As time goes by I’m finding it difficult to be around the same church community I’ve alays been around. It seems there is less in common. Also the cliches they use, are ones I don’t want to use. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want people to give me cliche answer to questions that don’t always need an instant answer. In church it seems that we are programmed to explain everything. Yet we have a God of mystery and complexity. We are conditioned to pack Him in a neat and organized box. We all don’t have to come to the same answer because we have different life experiences

  • It was those flippant answers about some of my deepest and most formative experiences that caused me to look for a community that I could flourish in, and ultimately find God in.

    I needed a community that would wrestle with what will be life long doubts, not dismiss them or require me to accept an answer that would never work. So I left after 23 years and found a community that allows me to find and see God where I was loosing him in my old spae. Perhaps you need the same?

  • TLM7

    thanks Chad, it helps me immensely to know i’m not alone. i embrace the mystery and complexity and wish there were more space for that in the modern church.

  • This is excellent, Brad!

    “‘Sola Scriptura’ is itself a slippery slope to autonomous readings of
    radical individualists and novel sects whose anarchy is every bit as
    dangerous as even institutional hierarchy.”

    Amen!

  • TLM7

    thanks Philip. my experience right now is having near constant anxiety about being at church. since i haven’t been attending for a while, i’ve received concerned messages about my faith which are really just about my lack of attendance. it’s hard to receive flippant, dismissive “advice” from people who i was once very close with –
    i’d be interested to hear how you discovered the new community. i’m glad you have found a good one.

  • Gerald Lewis

    If you make it to the fixed ropes, then you already have many scars of ridicule and isolation. I am taking a small group and making the ascent from the “Southern Fried Side” of the mountain and it is slow moving my friends.

  • Press on, brother.

  • Its started with a resignation to the reality that I needed one. I didn’t want a new place, new people, new everything. It was the only church I’d ever known.

    I went looking and email and checking out new places with my wife. I’d speak to the pastor after the service. Because it took me to long to leave and had such a history in church I knew what I needed if church was going to be something I could come back to. So I asked the questions “what do you do with doubt, brokenness, questioning, etc” And so in a dialogue of some kind I pushed and prodded until I felt I had a sense of the space and where they were at.

    It wasn’t looking for the perfect expression of church but one that I could be involved that helped draw me closer to God rather than push me further away.

  • TLM7

    that’s beautiful. i don’t know if i’m ready for a new place – i think i’d have to process leaving this one first. but it’s good to know what the process looked like for you. thanks.

  • Grant Corriveau

    A song for the search. Been there … So has this singer/songwriter apparently:

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/8872273/SteveBell_Restless.mp3

  • Timothy David Miller

    Brad, I said a VERY SIMPLIFIED version of this in our new members class on Sunday.

    Brad Jersak! Love you, dude.

  • Thank you for this write up.
    I know my temperament is fairly open to new ideas and others have different temperaments.

    I haven’t resonated with people’s fears of discerning new ideas.

    I can respect that people have fears and concerns. I’d like to see us equip people with wisdom, knowledge and love.

    Thank you for being a voice and sharing.

  • Steve

    Wow! Thank you for this article! I’ve been struggling with doubt and questions for awhile. I’ve been a Christian my whole life and I’ve spent the last year tearing apart almost everything that I’ve been taught since childhood. I’m an elder, community group leader, worship leader and children’s ministry worker, and needless to say, it’s very difficult to work through doubts and questions when I’m so involved in leadership. I often don’t know how to even express what my doubts or questions even are because I’ve deconstructed so much.
    I really appreciate your article. It feels good to know that other people are struggling through tough questions as well.
    Thank you!
    – steve

  • Takari Mooshi

    The creeds are essential to unity but but they only speak to the “what we believe” part of the story. Many issues of division are related to creed application. Take the homosexuality schism as a cheap shot example. Both sides are creed united yet it’s still possible that one is in grave error. The church fathers struggled with this same problem – “You believe there is one God. Good! But the demons believe, too! And they shake with fear.” —James 2:19 (ERV) The ropes of the creeds are more akin to guide ropes that help the blind navigate a trail. Helpful yes, but you can still slip.

  • Very nice.

    The creeds when developed were in fact changes to what had come before. They were far more than re-articulations or rediscoveries of existing formulations, but were theological responses to the needs in their day. These reactions didn’t attempt to answer every question, but were crafted to provide a suitable and necessary statement to a contemporary theological concern at the time. I spell it out in more detail here – http://www.jeffkclarke.com/the-place-of-creeds/

    Creeds help to guide us, but they do not spell the end to all future theological development and innovation. As you say, they tether us to the mountain of orthodoxy, while giving us the freedom and security to travel from cliff, to overhang, and from peak to peak, as we seek to understand the breadth and scope of the range even better.

    The creeds are like a mountain guide who provide us with the training and knowledge we need to safely navigate the mountain range. The lessons taught by the guide help us to explore other areas of the mountain, and even other mountains, by providing the framework and equipment required to do so safely.

    Creeds anchor us to the core ideas of our faith, while providing us with the tools and skills required to safely travel to other peaks, crevasses, and cliffs, in our search to better understand the central ideas they espouse.

  • Cmae

    I can’t even tell you how happy I am to find your blog. I returned to Christ a little over five years ago after spending 12 years – my entire “adult” life – in full fledged rebellion/seeking elsewhere. I am thrilled to know God and learn of His love for us. However, I am having difficulty finding community that dares to scale that mountain; in fact I have found myself avoided for asking questions, branded as a troublemaker for sincerely seeking and questioning and wanting to learn. Reading your blog tonight is a Godsend and an inspiration. Thank you.

  • Yoram Adriaanse

    I would say that process theology goes against the scriptures. God says He is unchanging, so I guess He is. The creeds definitely do not go against scripture